Week in Review: Maine legalization, California dispensary lawsuit & Illinois MMJ licensing

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By John Schroyer

Two very different visions of recreational legalization emerge in Maine, a California dispensary gets a break in an important lawsuit, and Illinois’ medical marijuana program inches forward.

Here’s a closer look at several notable developments in the cannabis industry over the past week.

Differing approaches

You don’t see this every day: A grassroots cannabis organization pushing for recreational marijuana legalization has snubbed one of the most prominent national MJ lobbying groups.

The reason? The two sides have disparate ideas of how a rec industry in the state should be structured, particularly when it comes to who can compete for MJ business licenses.

Legalize Maine filed proposed ballot measure language with the secretary of state’s office this week, taking a pass on supporting a parallel statewide effort for 2016 by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national advocacy organization based in Washington DC.

“Unfortunately, we have irreconcilable differences on our vision for the future in the state, and in the country,” said Paul McCarrier, president of Legalize Maine. “When you’re dealing with national organizations, the national agenda always trumps the local agenda. And that was a risk we could not take.”

Legalize Maine wants to ensure that big businesses – including out-of-state players and wealthy individuals – don’t completely dominate the industry.

The group’s ballot measure calls for devoting 40% of cultivation licenses in the state to small-scale farmers. McCarrier said the goal is to create an infrastructure that benefits Maine residents and independent businesses.

“Part of the problem that we see with legalized marijuana in other states is…if you don’t have a lot of operating capital, or you don’t have a lot of capital to compete for the license, you’ll be shut out of the industry,” McCarrier said.

The ballot measure specifically lays out strictures for the state to issue cultivation licenses in units of 10 square feet apiece, and cultivators could even just apply for single-unit grow licenses, he said. That will help boost Maine’s marijuana artisans who concentrate on growing a single strain at a time, McCarrier contended.

MPP’s Maine political director, David Boyer, said his group’s plans have not changed, and that the organization is committed to backing the “most effective, responsible and viable initiative to end prohibition and begin regulating marijuana like alcohol.”

Not only is it possible that MPP could file its own competing initiative, but there may even be a third measure from the state Legislature, according to the Maine Sun Journal.

That means three marijuana legalization questions could conceivably be on the ballot, which could jeopardize the chances of success for any of the initiatives.

Lawsuit update

Berkeley Patients Group, one of the most prominent MMJ dispensaries in California, won a sort of stay of execution in a case that has garnered widespread attention in the cannabis industry.

The case centers around a forfeiture action instigated in 2013 by U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag, who is trying to shut down Berkeley Patients Group and other dispensaries in the state.

But a federal district court judge ruled has that the dispensary can stay open while a separate appeal in the case is resolved, meaning it won’t have to shut down in the foreseeable future.

Good news, for sure. But even the dispensary’s attorney said it isn’t necessarily a cause for celebration, as there are still big battles ahead.

“We’re going to continue to fight. This is by no means over,” said Lara DeCaro, attorney for Berkeley Patients Group, one of the longest-running dispensaries in the country.

But, said DeCaro, that appeal could take two years to resolve, and then potentially another year before the actual forfeiture case against the dispensary goes to trial.

DeCaro did acknowledge that there’s a trend of “reluctance” on the part of courts to rule against marijuana companies that have been careful to abide by state and local law, but she said in many instances that doesn’t matter.

“Court cases are still governed by precedent and the legislation in place. So we really need an act of Congress,” DeCaro said. “(Judges) can’t legislate from the bench. They have to follow the rule of law.”

And three years is a long time, DeCaro noted. In that time frame, California could legalize recreational marijuana, the Drug Enforcement Administration could reschedule cannabis, Congress could decide to pass marijuana reform measures, or a new president could even take unilateral action to end prosecutions like the one launched by Haag.

Hurdle cleared

One of the final barriers for MMJ businesses in Illinois has fallen: The FBI has granted permission for state agencies to use its database for background checks.

The 70 business licenses that Gov. Bruce Rauner suddenly awarded in early February wound up in a quasi-legal status after news broke that mandatory background checks on the winning applicants have not yet been completed. Business licenses and owners have to be vetted through the FBI database before they can be fully legal, under Illinois state law.

Now that the FBI has granted Illinois permission to run the checks, the state’s MMJ program should (hopefully) be on track to get up and running in the near future.

Illinois MMJ entrepreneurs have seen delay after delay as the state stumbles through the implementation of its MMJ program.

Now, however, the program appears on the fast track, and the state is close to giving the final all clear for the launch of cannabis businesses.

John Schroyer can be reached at johns@mjbizmedia.com